My friend the mean girl.
Why do we hold on to the mean girls in our lives?
zoe started our 15-year relationship as my school bully, and what a bully she proved to be. The problem was, she was so funny. She had a great sense of audience too, knowing where best to position herself to secure the loudest laugh. She constructed a mono-desk at the back of the classroom for her gang, casting aspersions and dispensing scorn. My reaction was that I was no longer able to read aloud in class. I was mid-paragraph in German class one afternoon when my breath cut off and my voice shut down. I gasped at the class and then spent the next 15 years concocting excuses to avoid speaking in public.
After months of being pilloried for the amusement of her gang, I came in one day to find the mono-desk a desk shorter. It turned out that Zoe had been expelled from her gang for kissing a fellow member’s boyfriend.
Purgatory didn’t suit Zoe. There were tears, absences, parent-teacher conferences (why did the school protect the bullies and not the bullied?)—all to no avail. Zoe was out in the cold. Which meant her crosshairs were no longer trained on me. I was off the hook—free.
Months later, I ran into Zoe. I had come out of the movie theatre and there she was. I was 15; she was 16. “Call me,” she said, and I nodded a “Yeah, whatever.” “Seriously,” she insisted. “Call me.” She looked so forlorn and so lonely. I called. And so began our friendship, though friendship is hardly the word.
She was trouble. That’s what I liked best about her. She was reckless and destructive, and when she didn’t unleash those traits on me, life together was a laugh. Dare I say it? I was proud of my new friend. I needed validation after the endless sneering, and who better to provide this than the one who’d sneered in the first place? Sad, I know, but there it is.
There was a problem from the get-go with Zoe and men—or, rather, with other girls’ boyfriends. “I get a real
kick if I can get the boyfriend to eye me back,” she told me. “Know what I mean?” No, actually, I didn’t. She had an affair with a married man soon after she got her first job in an advertising firm. He was the artistic director, and she’d ring me to regurgitate the compliments he’d given her. But then she changed.
She slowed down and ballooned out. A boy she’d met in New York (she was high and wearing a cocktail dress at the time) visited to cheer her up. The Zoe he got was not the one who had enchanted him back in SoHo, but he persisted and made her his wife. Zoe, it seemed, was finally happy.
I got an apology of sorts during that period—our mid-20s. It ran something like this: The boy: “Zoe has something to say, Claire.” Zoe stares at the table. The boy: “Don’t you, Zoe?” Silence. “Zoooeeee,” the boy wheedles, “remember what we discussed?” Zoe shrugs. The boy smiles apologetically. “What Zoe is trying to say is that she’s really sorry about what happened at school. Aren’t you, Zoe?” Zoe nods, eyes still lowered. The boy: “Yeah, Zoe wants you to know she regrets bullying you.” Zoe continues to stare at the table. Me, to break the silence: “Thanks, Zoe.” Zoe, shyly: “You’re welcome.” Though the apology was less than it could have been, it proved that Zoe had confessed to her husband that she had bullied me and so must have felt bad about it. That counted for something. “You know as well as I know how hard it is to love Zoe sometimes,” the boy confided to me later that night. Before she turned 30, he left her for a dancer. It was just me and Zoe again, or what was left of her.
I got my publishing deal. Zoe asked to read my novel in manuscript form. I agreed but changed my mind. First novels are delicate fledglings. I had to protect mine from her withering gaze, for Zoe was back on form again by then. She summoned me to a meeting.
“I have to ask you a question,” she began. “It’s a bit awkward,” she continued, “but I’d appreciate your honesty.” I wondered what I could have done. “Your novel, Claire,” she began. “Is it about me?” I laughed, spattering my drink across the table. She thought I’d spent three years of my life writing about her. “Sorry to have to disappoint you…” I began. Then came my turn to be betrayed by her when it came to men. I’d escaped in my 20s because I had no man to steal, but then I met...let’s call him “John.” I told Zoe how strongly I felt about John. The two of us were sitting in a bar, drinking cocktails. It was New Year’s Eve. “I’ve something to tell you,” said Zoe. “John kissed me.”
I put a hand on the bar to steady myself. Then I thanked her. I reassured her that she had done the right thing to tell me and that she was a true friend. She accepted my gratitude. She had saved me from a terrible man, after all.
I wanted details. When had the kiss happened? It was the night the four of us had been out together, she said. Me with John, her with Harry. Did it happen in the club? “No.” Outside the club? “No.” Where, then? “John’s flat.” But you weren’t alone with John in his flat. She shrugged. Where was I when this occurred? I persisted. “I don’t know,” she said, “the toilet?” And where was Harry? Again, she wasn’t sure. Not good enough. I left to phone John. He laughed. “You were there,” he told me. “You saw it all.” I thought back. Zoe, drunk, had grabbed John’s head and pulled his mouth onto hers. When she released him, John had looked at me and made a “Holy shit!” face. I had made a “Holy shit!” face back. Hardly a betrayal on his part. But hers? That was a different matter.
I went back to the bar with this information. I told Zoe what I’d seen—that John had not kissed her but that she had kissed John—that I’d been there when it happened. “How was I supposed to know you were there?” she’d countered angrily, as if I were the one at fault.
I gathered my stuff and left. Zoe didn’t follow. I made my way up the street as people around me rang in the New Year. The farther I walked, the more I could feel Zoe falling away behind me. That part of my life was over.
She tried to contact me over the next few months. I refused to take her calls. I worried that I might run into her on the street, that there would be a showdown, a confrontation. But nothing. There were sightings—someone saw her here, another saw her there. But I saw her nowhere. Our paths never crossed.
Zoe showed up again six and a half years later. I was signing books, when I looked up to find her next in the line. “Jesus,” I said. She handed over a bunch of flowers. They were beautiful. Her narrow frame was trembling from head to foot. I stood up and embraced her across the table. “It’s great to see you,” she kept saying. “It’s really great.” I sat down, wrote my email address in her book, gave it to her and then got back to signing books.
She emailed to say she was happy to see I hadn’t lost my taste in boots and that she’d love to meet up. There was a rush of fondness for the old days, because when Zoe was good, she was very, very good, but when she was bad, she would always strive to hurt me. I shuddered and clicked “delete.” n